The Alaska Bucket List

Discover Your Favorite Alaska National Park

[by Alli Harvey]

Drop dead gorgeous. One of the top spots I’ve been to on planet earth. Magical. These are just a few of the phrases used to describe Alaska’s vast network of national parks and preserves. Something within this network of eight parks throughout the state inspires awe in visitors and often changes lives.

“As the world continues to shrink,” says Jim Stratton, longtime conservationist and explorer, “Alaska has an ever-rarer commodity, which is wilderness.” Stratton has visited all of the parks in Alaska and is quick to rattle off anecdotes from his many trips and what he values most about each.

Stratton isn’t alone—more than 2.5 million visitors flock to the parks annually, arriving with itineraries, cameras and hopes of seeing a grizzly bear. Most leave with much more, and you can too. Read on for an overview of Alaska’s national park highlights and tour ideas for enjoying multiple parks during the same vacation.

Bird’s Eye View— What’s in a Park?

Alaska’s national parks provide access to incredibly diverse regions across the state, from tundra to rainforest. Here is a snapshot of each park.

Denali is the nation’s tallest peak, at 20,310 feet. Readily accessible from Alaska’s road system, Denali National Park and Preserve affords a range of wilderness activities and sights from backpacking to bus tours. “After a rainstorm the clouds are clearing and you see the peak and think that’s the top of the mountain,” says Joan Frankevich, staff at National Parks Conservation Association.

“Then you realize you’re looking at a mountain that is half the size of Denali, and the real top is twice as high.”

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve has neither roads nor established trails. For thousands of years this area has been a critical migratory path for caribou and cultures that continue to rely on them. Rafters, climbers and hikers travel the park’s rivers, peaks and valleys for true wilderness adventure.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve offers unparalleled opportunities to see and hear a tidewater glacier calve into the ocean, watch whales cavort and experience temperate rainforest that’s greener than green, soothing and enormous at 3.3 million acres.

Katmai National Park and Preserve hosts over 10,000 human guests annually, alongside a healthy population of salmon fed brown bears. Visitors can get close to bears without feeling threatened. Those looking for a more remote experience seek out the aptly named Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes for unusual backpacking terrain.

Readily accessible from the road system, Kenai Fjords National Park makes an excellent single-day tour with up-close glacier and wildlife viewing. Take a boat tour to see bright blue, calving glaciers. Hikers can walk right up to the massive Harding Ice Field.

Kobuk Valley National Park in far northwest Alaska is the least visited national park in the state. Hike on sand dunes, see ghost trees, and discover a varied landscape. Caribou roam this park annually, leaving their tracks—along with those of wolves, foxes and other wildlife—in the sand.

One of the most-popular features of  Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is legendary woodsman Dick Proenneke’s cabin (pictured); his life story unfolds in the book One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey and subsequent film Alone in the Wilderness. Beyond the cabin, the park is vast—yet only a float plane ride from Anchorage—and includes volcanoes, huge runs of salmon and the likelihood of seeing bears in early summer.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the most off-the-beaten-path national park on Alaska’s road system. The historic Kennecott copper mine provides a view into another time. Walking on a glacier in the park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and mountain views take your breath away. One of the best ways to see the park’s spectacular scenery is via a flightseeing tour.

Homestead log cabin built by Dick Proenneke at Twin Lakes, Lake Clark National Park.

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